Friday, September 13, 2013

A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

"As I was a stranger in Olondria," the narrator of Sofia Samatar's debut novel tells us in its opening sentences,
I knew nothing of the splendor of its coasts, nor of Bain, the Harbor City, whose lights and colors spill into the ocean like a cataract of roses.  I did not know the vastness of the spice markets of Bain, where the merchants are delirious with scents.  I had never seen the morning mists adrift above the surface of the green Illoun, of which the poets sing; I had never seen a woman with gems in her hair, nor observed the copper glinting of the domes, nor stood upon the melancholy beaches of the south while the wind brought in the sadness from the sea.  Deep within the Fayaleith, the Country of the Wines, the clarity of light can stop the heart; it is the light the local people call "the breath of angels" and is said to cure heartsickness and bad lungs.  Beyond this is the Balinfeil, where, in the winter months, the people wear caps of white squirrel fur, and in the summer months the goddess Love is said to walk and the earth is carpeted with almond blossom.  But of all this I knew nothing.  I knew only of the island where my mother oiled her hair in the glow of a rush candle, and terrified me with stories of the Ghost with No Liver, whose sandals slap when he walks because he has his feet on backwards.
It's a hell of a first paragraph, not least because of how much it tells us about the book we're about to read.  It tells us, even if we weren't already aware of this fact, that A Stranger in Olondria is a secondary world fantasy and a travelogue.  It tells us that this is a book whose power is rooted first and foremost in worldbuilding and language, and that both are executed in a manner that is ornate and even a touch overwhelming.  And if we pay attention, it also tells us something else: that despite its elaborate, eye-catching worldbuilding, what A Stranger in Olondria is about isn't its fantastic locations but their ultimate unknowability.  The book begins not with a litany of its fantastic world's wonders but with the narrator distancing himself from them.  The paragraph ends by stressing that distance, the wide gulf between the world the narrator knew and the one the story takes place in.  Despite the implicit promise of the paragraph's past tense--the narrator was a stranger in Olondria, suggesting that he isn't one anymore--it is that strangeness that lies at the heart of the novel.

The speaker here is Jevick of Tyom, a native of the Tea Islands, which lie to the south of the great empire of Olondria.  The son of a prosperous pepper merchant, Jevick's relatively normal upbringing takes an odd turn when his father returns from one of his trading expeditions with an Olondrian tutor, Lunre, who teaches Jevick not only the Olondrian language, but also how to read, an unknown skill in the Tea Islands, and introduces him to the culture's great epics.  When Jevick's father dies unexpectedly, leaving him the heir to his business, the young man leaps at the opportunity to travel to the Olondrian capital, Bain, and see the wonders that he's only read about.  But if A Stranger in Olondria opens with an affirmation of strangeness, within the story, young Jevick is convinced of his belonging in Olondria; in reading about it, he believes, he has become a native.  During the ocean passage, Jevick sneers at what he views as the pretense of the other traders, who think of themselves as men of the world for their familiarity with Olondria and Bain, but who, to him, are just rubes because they don't fully appreciate Olondrian culture: "None of them knew as much as I; none of them spoke Olondrian; their bovine heads were empty of an appreciation of the North."  Later, in the city, he protests when a group of young people he falls in with call him a foreigner, exclaiming that "I've been raised on the northern poets..."  But if Jevick is convinced that having been immersed in Olondrian culture means that he is not, despite the novel's title, a stranger in it, the novel shows us that it has already estranged him from his own culture--before his death, Jevick's father resented his son's fascination with books, and the young man's urgent desire to see the great city and experience its wonders confuses and frightens his servants, who are used to the journey to Bain being treated in a more utilitarian, profit-oriented manner.

An emphasis on rich descriptive language and elaborate worldbuilding creates the expectation of a Tolkien-ishly thorough work of creation--the sort of thing that M. John Harrison has called "the clomping foot of nerdism," which some authors and readers have adopted as a badge of honor.  And indeed, reading A Stranger in Olondria, there can be no doubt that Samatar knows far more about her world than she tells us in this novel--the map at the beginning of the book is much broader than the scope of its events, and throughout his narrative Jevick references literary works and historical events that the reader remains ignorant of, thus adding another wrinkle to the confused meaning of his claim to be a stranger.  (If there were any doubt about the scope of Samatar's worldbuilding, this recent entry on her blog by "guest-blogger" Ethen of Deinivel, who expounds on the Olondrian alphabet, would surely put it to rest.)  But A Stranger in Olondria is a very different book from the kind of Tolkien-esque epic fantasy in which such obsessive construction of secondary worlds is usually found.  Though there can be no doubt of the detail work that has gone into Samatar's worldbuilding, what shows up on the page is more impressionistic.  The references that Jevick makes are rarely explained; later in the novel, when he travels outside of Bain into regions that have been conquered by the Olondrians, he comments darkly about their history as though assuming that his readers will know what he's talking about (which, given what we later learn about the book's intended audience, may not be a reasonable assumption).  His experiences in Bain itself feel almost like a fever dream--certainly when Jevick, ignoring the warnings of the proprietor of his hotel, participates in the city's licentious Feast of Birds.  For all of Samatar's behind-the-scenes worldbuilding, her focus is on how Jevick reacts to the world she's built, on how he's overwhelmed by the richness and strangeness of his new experiences.  It is these feelings, and not a precise description of Olondria and Bain, that she tries to convey.
There was never an end to Bain.  I never felt as though I had touched it, though I loved the book markets under the swinging trees, the vast array of books on tables, in boxes, stacked on the ground, and the grand old villas converted into bookshops.  I loved the Old City also, which is called the "Quarter of Sighs," with its barred windows and brooding fortified towers, and I loved to watch the canal winding below the streets and bridges and the stealthy boats among the shadows of trees.  Laughing, replete, I raised a glass of teiva in a café, surrounded by a bold crowd of temporary companions, a girl at my side, some Ailith or Kerlith whose name I no longer recall, for she was erased like the others by the one who followed.
The effect of this is that the first half of A Stranger in Olondria feels utterly directionless, literally like the travelogue that the book's first chapters seem to be emulating.  Coupled with the rich language and twisty turns of phrase, this can make for some slow reading.  This is especially true in the chapter describing the Feast of Birds, in which Jevick is caught up in the religious ecstasy and debauchery surrounding the celebration of Avalei, the Goddess of Love and Death.  The hallucinatory tone of these scenes--which reminded me of Jeff VanderMeer's "Dradin, In Love," the first story in City of Saints of Madmen, in which a missionary returning to the supposed bosom of civilization finds that it conceals madness--brings to a crescendo the impression that A Stranger in Olondria is beautiful but also aimless--only for it, and the novel's lackadaisical progression through its story, to come crashing down in a literal rude awakening, for both Jevick and the readers.  Coming to in a seedy brothel the morning after the festival, Jevick discovers that everything that was beautiful and transcendent the night before is now grimy and mundane.
I woke to glare and silence.  And then, beyond the silence, sound--the sounds from the street which I realized had awakened me, sounds of talk and footsteps, a burst of laughter, the whine of a door, the scrape of a wooden table across the pavement.  My mouth was dry, but I felt no pain until I tried to move, and then I began to ache in every limb, the agony concentrated in my skull, which throbbed rhythmically as if in time to the ringing of my ears.  With the pain came the realization that I was in a strange room, and that the silence of the room was the first thing I had heard, a blankness that made me uneasy because it was not like other silences: it was the dead sound of abandonment and squalor.
What's important is that this is the first time that we, the readers, have seen Bain without the sentimentalizing gloss that Jevick's narration has laid over it.  For the first time in the novel, it feels like an ordinary city--where you might be woken by the scrape of a table across the pavement--not a place of wonders.  But Jevick's disillusionment is far from done.  On his journey to Olondria, Jevick encountered a fellow islander named Jissavet, who was afflicted with a terminal illness and traveling to Olondria to find a cure--which neither she nor Jevick could see much hope for.  On the morning after the Feast of Birds, Jissavet begins to haunt Jevick, causing him to lapse into fits of terror and self-harm.  For Jevick and his servant, his affliction, though tragic, is easily comprehended as part of their cosmology.  Jissavet, they reason, has died and been buried, which has left her soul unable to move on, and she has latched on to Jevick, her countryman, so that he will find her body and release her by disposing of it "properly," in the island way.  But when Jevick tries to explain his situation to the Olondrians, he is seized and imprisoned.  For all his knowledge of Olondrian history and literature, Jevick is ignorant of its politics and religion.  He doesn't know that in Olondria, people who see ghosts (or rather, "angels") are revered as saints by the cult of Avalei, and that this cult has been deposed and hounded by the ruling religion, the worshipers of the Stone.  When Jevick is brought before the Priest of the Stone, his affliction is folded into the dominant worldview, which sees saints as charlatans, and Jevick in particular as a representative of an attempted power grab.
"our own people, as you may know, have a terrible passion for angels.  At one time, one could scarcely dream of one's dead grandfather without being dragged to the temple.  Those who claimed they could speak with the dead were revered, and people came to them with all sorts of questions, as if they were oracles.  How will the maize crop be, where is the necklace my mother gave me, whom will I marry, who stole my brown horse--all nonsense, chicanery, a farce!  Yes, the love of angels was once a canker of this country, and I am the physician who removed it. ... I will not have my people duped.  I will have them clean, and honest, and able to read the Vanathul.  Words are sublime, and in books we may commune with the dead.  Beyond this there is nothing true, no voices we can hear."
In genre fiction in particular, there is a tendency to fetishize books.  Whether it's the act of reading or books as an object, you'll often find authors rhapsodizing about the ability of books to transport readers, or the universality of storytelling.  It's not that I disagree, but the form that these panegyrics take often strikes me as precious and not a little self-aggrandizing (after all, these are writers and readers telling us how special and all-powerful writing and reading is).  In its first half, A Stranger in Olondria often teeters on the brink of that preciousness.  When Jevick first grasps the heretofore unimagined concept of writing, he perceives it as witchcraft ("My back and shoulders were cold, though a hot, heavy air came in from the garden.  I stared at my master, who looked back at me with his wise, crystalline eyes.  'Do not be afraid,' he said"), and as Samatar describes its effect on him, it does have elements of an enchantment: "In my room, in my village, I shone like a moth with its back to a sparkling fire.  Master Lunre had taught me his sorcery: I embraced it and swooned in its arms."  On his first morning in Bain, Jevick has an experience that many avid readers will recognize when he first walks into a bookstore:
There were so many books.  There were more than my master had carried in his sea chest.  The shop seemed impossible, otherworldly, a cave of wonders; yet it was not even a true bookshop like the ones I would discover later, lining both side of the Street of Poplars.  It was one of those little shops, tucked into various corners of Bain, which sell portraits of popular writers and tobacco as well as books, whose main profits come from the newspapers, whose volumes are poorly bound, and which always seem to be failing, yet are as perennial as the flowers.  It is unlikely that anyone before or since has experienced, in that humble establishment, a storm of emotion as powerful as mine.  I collected stack after stack of books, seizing, rejecting, replacing, giddy with that sweet exhalation: the breath of parchments.
Even in these early chapters, however, there's a sinister undertone to Jevick's bibliophilia--as noted, Jevick's knowing how to read drives a wedge between him and his father, and estranges him from his own culture.  When he meets the Priest of the Stone, that undertone blossoms into the novel's core theme, a profound ambivalence about writing and its power.  The acolytes of the Stone worship writing--the Stone itself is, from what we hear about it, similar to the Rosetta Stone, but it is described to Jevick in religious rapture: "The Stone... I wish I could show it to you.  Perhaps then you would understand.  It is black, heavy, miraculous, covered with writing..."  Jevick himself, of course, is closer to their view than to the religion of Avalei, and he anyway views his haunting in a much more materialistic light, and is as put off as the Priest of the Stone by the way that so-called saints like himself are used to take advantage of the bereaved.  But the Stone-worshipers' fanaticism, and the way that it ends up victimizing Jevick--he is imprisoned in a sanatorium, and when he escapes witnesses a brutal massacre of Avalei's followers--can't help but cast a pall on their beliefs.  Jevick himself never loses his love of books and the written word--throughout his ordeal he clings to the few books in his possession, and draws solace from reading and rereading them--but when the priests of Avalei free him and promise to help him find Jissavet's body in exchange for his services as a saint, it's hard for the reader not to take their bibliophobic side.

In the second half of the novel, as Jevick makes his way through the Olondrian countryside, dodging pursuing troops, gingerly trying on the role of holy man, and befriending his rescuers-cum-captors, Samatar further complicates her novel's perspective on reading.  When Jevick witnesses the aforementioned massacre, he describes it to his readers but concludes that no written account could do justice to the horror of what he witnessed, seemingly limning the boundaries of what writing can accomplish: "The history books would tell of the burning of the Night Market of Nuillen, but they would erase the terror, the stench of blood and soot.  And the noise--the noise."  But when Jissavet makes herself known to Jevick, what she wants isn't for her body to be destroyed, but for Jevick to write a book of her life story--to put her in a book, as they both come to think about it.  Jevick's resistance to this request, which he describes repeatedly as madness, seems rooted more in his objection to mixing Olondrian and islander concepts than in any practical difficulties--"Write her a book, set her words down in Olondrian characters!  This ghost, this interloper, speaking only Kideti!"--but when he does finally agree to write down Jissavet's story, doing so forges a bond between them that knowing the actual woman never did.  "Those years, the years she lay in the doorway: every one of them hurts me, and every hour has an individual pain," Jevick laments after finishing Jissavet's story.  "Lost hours, irretrievable, hours that I could have taken up and treasured and which were scattered abroad in the mud."  These chapters--in which the adherents of the Stone are depicted as monstrous and tyrannical--are also the ones in which A Stranger in Olondria finally allows its readers to experience the fiction that has so enraptured Jevick, rather than hearing about it secondhand--we hear folktales, ballads, parables, and life stories. 

For a novel whose setting seems so ripe for a discussion of it (and coming from an author whose previous writing, fiction and non-fiction, has frequently dealt with it) A Stranger in Olondria seems, initially, strangely silent on the subject of class and colonialism.  Even though we know that Olondria is an empire and meet other peoples whom it has conquered, the relationship between it and the Tea Islands--over which it towers technologically and militarily--is strangely equitable.  There is no East India Company here, and Jevick's father can trade with Olondrian merchants as an equal without kowtowing to Olondrian colonial representatives.  It's only subtly that class issues begin creeping into the novel, and they do so first through Jissavet's story.  Born to a family without jut--a fetish which to the islanders represents their soul, and which is possessed only by the rich and influential--Jissavet spent her life envying and resenting people like Jevick.  When that resentment is introduced through her story, we realize that the privilege of our narrator has blinded him, and us, to some of the realities of his world.

And in Samatar's universe, that privilege is inextricably bound up with literacy.  When Jevick first meets Lunre, he assumes that he's about to be taught to keep accounts, a practical skill.  Instead, Jevick's father has brought the tutor as a status symbol, and being taught to do something as useless as reading is an indulgence (one that he ends up resenting his son for).  While the Priest of the Stone treats the criminalization of saint-worship as a liberation of his people, the priests of Avalei treat it as the eradication of a conquered culture: "Our people can no longer bear it.  They cannot bear, anymore, to be kept from all unwritten forms of the spirit."  When they tell Jevick that, following their victory over the followers of the Stone, they will burn down the Olondrian libraries, they treat literacy as a class marker.  "We are not criminals, but the protectors of those without strength," the priest tells Jevick, and when the latter protests that the new prince, who is friendly to the cult of Avalei, will be as monstrous as his father, the priest shrugs that "You may be right.  But he will save a future, a way of life.  For those who cannot read, he will save the world."

But Jissavet herself sees it otherwise.  A book is a jut, she tells Jevick after he's finished writing her story, implying that literacy is an equalizer.  When he returns to the Tea Islands after Avalei's victory, Jevick turns them into a bastion of literacy, but in a way that is uncoupled from the Stone's fanatical worship of lifeless words and from the class divisions that eventually overturned it.  He recasts the Olondrian alphabet to reflect the islander language, and teaches it to its children.  They, in turn, take their newfound ability and use it to create their own stories, an act that Jevick describes as revolutionary.
In the schoolroom they show me the words they have written during my absence, whole stories in Kideti, embryonic poems.  This alphabet was developed in Olondria, I tell them, but it is our own; it was used to pen the first work of written Kideti literature, The Anadnedet, by Jissavet of Kiem.  This is why we call it Jissavet's Alphabet.  At the end of each lesson I read aloud from this seminal work.  And I introduce them to others, books I have translated from Olondrian in the most violent and sacrilegious form of reading.  And I tell them: This is a journey to jepnatow-het, the land of shadows.  Do not mistake it for the country of the real.
By poking at it and questioning it, and by tying it to issues of class that also apply in the real world, A Stranger in Olondria earns its bibliophilia.  It shows us the worst of what books can do to us--how they can flatten the horror of real events, how they erect yet another barrier between the privileged and not-privileged, how reading only one kind of book can blind us to the realities of the world while making us think that we know it, and how one can become fonder of the people one meets in books than of the ones in the real world.  But having done that, it can justify the argument for the wonderful things that books can do--their ability to broaden our point of view, to make us see and understand people who have been denied their voice, and, of course, to take us to far off places.  Many odes to books can feel flat and self-congratulatory, but by tying its meditations on them to the adventures and misadventures of Jevick, and his growth into wisdom and compassion, Samatar cut through my cynicism about such a project.  Near the end of the novel, she delivers the following meditation about the pleasures and griefs of reading.  By that point, she has done so much to cut through the treacle of reflexive bibliophilia, and to make Jevick a real, flawed, but ultimately wise and kind figure, that it not only feels earned (and accurate to how avid readers often see their love of books), but like a description of the book that we are about to finish:
Earlier, frightened, you began to have some intimation of it: so many pages had been turned, the book was so heavy in one hand, so light in the other, thinning towards the end. ... Then, the silence comes, like the absence of sound at the end of the world.  You look up.  It's a room in an old house.  Or perhaps it's a seat in a garden, or even a square; perhaps you've been reading outside and you suddenly see the carriage going by.  Life comes back, the shadows of leaves.  Someone comes to ask what you will have for dinner, or two small boys run past you, wildly shouting; or else it's merely a breeze blowing a curtain, the white unfurling into a room, brushing the papers on the desk.  It is the sound of the world.  But to you, the reader, it is only a silence, untenanted and desolate.  This is the grief that comes when we are abandoned by the angels: silence, in every direction, irrevocable.

4 comments:

Foxessa said...

One cannot help being reminded of Jan Morris's novels, Last Letters From Hav and Hav while reading this one.

zahrawithaz said...

I love this novel so much. The beauty of its language, and the vividness of the many minor characters Jevick meets, whom you don't mention here, but who lingered long in my mind, have made it one of my best reads this year. But the sophistication of its engagement with both world-building and bibliophilia, and the intertwining of the two, are truly memorable. Thank you for your thoughts on its major themes here.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for this post. I just finished the book, and you have, as it were, explained what I just read.

At least superficially, the book reminded me of Gene Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer and the next three books in that series, in that it set a mood, and put you in a place you'd never been, without much explanation.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

That's an interesting comparison. I read The Shadow of the Torturer years ago, and found it a bit hard-going (I never made it to the sequels). Now that you point it out, there's definitely a similarity in the kind of dense-but-gorgeous that the two books are. Maybe Samatar speaks to me more, or maybe I'm just a more patient reader than I was ten years ago.

Post a Comment